This Reader Story is from GRS reader Mel from brokeGIRLrich.com. Mel recently paid off her student loans and is focusing on a frugal lifestyle to help her navigate the uncertain world of entertainment employment.
Some reader stories contain general advice; others are examples of how a GRS reader achieved financial success or failure. These stories feature folks with all levels of financial maturity and income.
Like lots of other millennials, I spent most of my 20s in school, working underpaid jobs I'm overqualified for, giving up on those jobs, going back to school and, in the process, racking up some pretty awesome student debt. Then I worked my way through the seven stages of grief:
“Sure, let's go to Amsterdam. Whatever, I've got some room left on my credit card, I can afford a flight to Peru — hostels are really cheap anyway.” Seriously, I've never had a Sephora problem. I've ALWAYS had a Priceline and Orbitz problem. I'd have been better off buying pricey eyeliner. Anyway, this, my friends, is Denial.
Then my inbox would ding and my Capital One statement would be in there or Sallie Mae, that wench. Like a Pavlovian dog, I began to associate that ding with a punch in the gut. Pain.
After I straightened out from that punch in the gut, I would beg the sweet baby Jesus to supply me with a winning lottery ticket, because if he did, I would settle down in New Jersey, get a decent and boring job and never buy another plane ticket or try to get any more degrees from school again. Bargaining.
And then I would crawl into my bed, pull the covers over my head and hide. Seriously. Literally. That's a totally legit solution for a 26-year-old, right? Depression.
Unfortunately, I still had to go to class. And eat. And try to write a thesis. So I got out of bed. And took my name off of every single mailing list for anything travel-related. Upward turn.
I got a part-time job as a campus tour guide. And I made a budget. And I contacted my previous job that I had been so happy to run away from and asked to go back after graduation. Reconstruction.
Then I made a timeline for how long it would take me to pay back $30,000 (more than a flipping year's salary) — and tried not to slide back into denial (because, yes, I DID want to go to Thailand), bargaining or depression. And then I started paying down that sucker every month. Acceptance.
What does all of that have to do with being frugal?
They say taking the first step is the hardest, and it is pretty rough; but, if you ask me, staying on track is just as bad. Because when you take that first step, you've made progress and you know it. It's a pretty rewarding feeling as you write that first check. But as you write the next one and then the next 10 and it still doesn't feel like the number is getting any better (even though it definitely is), you need something to turn to.
So I found frugality. I mean, apparently I always liked it a little, because I was obsessed with Hints from Heloise as a kid (yeah, I was a weird kid). And as I went further down this personal finance/debt repayment, I was pointed to more and more frugal tips, which was great because I couldn't magically write a check for $5,000 in a month, but I could learn where to find coupons and I could save $20 more. Which isn't much, I know, but I was doing something and I finally felt a wave of satisfaction like when I wrote that first check.
And now I've been pretty frugal for about two years and that is how I get to wonder how much frugality is too much? With the end of my debt in sight, was everything worth it? Could I have done it better (probably)?
I have become pretty adept with your everyday couponing. I'm not an extreme couponer (is that too frugal?), but I always check things out on the Internet before heading to the grocery store. I brown-bag it to work and tap water is just fine to me. I saved enough in an emergency fund to really jack up my insurance deductibles so those rates would be low. I've gone generic at the grocery store. I add some water to the bottom of my soap bottles to get the last little bit out. I'm signed up for every birthday freebie club under the sun.
I regret not going to Prague when I found a good deal online and could've done the whole stinkin' thing for like $500. I regret missing that Thailand trip too… together they would've put me behind my debt repayment plan by about six months. And honestly, it wouldn't have been the end of the world.
So I'm wondering where the rest of the people out there draw the line with frugality and paying down debt. Have you given up your car (seriously, I could never)? Rented out a room in your home? Do you take DIY to new levels and make your own detergents, shampoos and cleaners?